Wednesday, November 17, 2010

DVD Review: GG Allin & the AIDS Brigade, Live in Boston 1989

It's probably safe to say that most of the world has no idea who singer-songwriter/performer GG Allin was. It's also probably safe to say that most of these are happier not knowing.

Among the few who do know of him and his work, Allin is justifiably infamous. Noted for his abrasive punk rock music and legendarily extreme live performances, Allin claimed to see himself as "the last real rock n'roller," reasoning that true rock n' roll should be confrontational, rebellious, and even dangerous. This manifested in his lyrics--which were often unabashedly misogynistic, misanthropic, racist, and lauditory of drugs, rape, and even pedophilia--but most famously through his concerts, which were less musical performances than displays of aggression, hatred, and personal degradation. Allin routinely performed his entire sets naked, bloodied himself on the microphone, destroyed equipment and leapt into the audience to physically assault his "fans." He would defecate and urinate onstage, sometimes rolling in or even eating his own excrement. He promised in interviews, quite seriously, that one day he would commit suicide onstage. His shows were routinely ended not by Allin himself, but by apalled club owners pulling the plug or the local police forcibly shutting him down.

For those fascinated by Allin as a figure in underground music, or perhaps just morbidly interested in the musician's legendary spectacle, the new DVD from MVD Entertainment, GG Allin and the AIDS Brigate: Live in Boston, 1989, delivers all one could hope for or fear. It also offers cultural anthropologists and psychologists and fascinating if disturbing look at one of the most extreme, violent, and self-destructive figures in American rock n' roll.

Allin, rockin' with his cock in (for a change)

The DVD actually presents three live performances by Allin--the titular gig and then two "bonus shows" recorded on consecutive nights in 1993 (in Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR, respectively). Of the three, the Boston show is by far the most tame. Allegedly because Allin had already been banned from most clubs in Boston at the time, he and his band The AIDS Brigade hit on the idea of dressing in drag in order to smuggle GG in for the gig. We see rehearsal footage of GG and the Band going through the set, which is businesslike and uneventful--just a normal punk band going through their songs. Likewise, footage of the band getting made-up before the gig shows a young, fresh-faced, and possibly stoned Allin joking with the band members, discussing changes to the set list, and basically acting like a normal human being rather than a raving, drooling lunatic. Having read a lot about the man's more infamous antics, this was not at all what I had expected.

The gig itself also confounded those expectations. Obviously filmed by a friend of the band using low-end home video equipment, the footage shows again a relatively normal-seeming punk rock band--albeit dressed in garish drag--running through their songs in front of an appreciative and honestly rather muted crowd. Never having heard any of Allin's songs, I admit I was surprised by how solid the band was musically. Sure, it's noisy at times and Allin's voice is a gruff, gravelly rasp, but he is at least intelligible, and at its core the music is basically straightforward, driving rock n'roll. The only real extreme parts here are the lyrics, as Allin growls through such "hits" as "Cunt on the Loose," "I Wanna Rape You," and the diabolically catchy "Expose Yourself to Kids." Toward the end of the show Allin does lift his skirt and flash his penis at the crowd briefly, but nobody--neither the club owner nor the laughing, chattering crowd--seems too bent out of shape about it.

After that short gig was over--from beginning to end it's just over half an hour, not counting the pre-gig footage--I was beginning to wonder if maybe all the myth of GG Allin had been hyped out of proportion; whether the shocking transgressions of the past had been rendered quaint with the passage of time, as so often happens in art.

Then--I watched the "bonus shows."

There are quite literally NO screengrabs I could get from the bonus shows that would be publishable on Blogger. Therefore, here's a shot of Allin and his band rehearsing, fully clothed and unbefouled by far as I can tell.
Seattle, Washington: 1993. GG Allin and 3/4 of his band the Murder Junkies are standing on a brightly lit stage, waiting for their guitar player to arrive. Allin is dressed in combat boots, underwear, a dog collar and an infantry helmet, and nothing else. A large black tarp is spread on the stage, and Allin removes his underwear and stalks naked before the crowd, covered in jailhouse tattoos and sweat. He rips the pages from a Bible and sets them on fire in the middle of the stage. Allin defecates and urinates onstage, rolls around in the excrement and ashes, and uses a turkey baster to administer a self-enema. Finally the guitarist arrives, and the show starts in earnest.

Something has clearly happened to Allin since the show in Boston, as now he's the raving lunatic I'd been led to expect. (He explains later that he has just been released from prison--details on the unsettling reasons behind his incarceration are available on his Wikipedia page.) He runs through many of the songs from the previous show, completely naked, stopping only to taunt the crowd, inviting women up to urinate on him and daring men either to come up and suck his cock or else present theirs for Allin to suck. (Strangely, no takers on either offer.) He cuts his own forehead open on the microphone and is soon covered with blood as well as excrement and sweat. He leaps into the crowd and is pummelled by the bravest of the concertgoers, sometimes striking back, others simply taking it. He rips the shirt off one female "fan," and pulls a hapless and completely unwilling girl from the backstage area while he sings "I Wanna Rape You," making the viewer worry that an actual sexual assault may be in the offing. (Apparently the stage hands were concerned about this as well, as they eventually drag him off her and shuffle the thankful girl offstage.) Allin gets more and more out of control, throwing heavy mike stands into the crowd and rolling around in the filth onstage, finally draping the dripping tarp over himself like a cloak. The show ends when the club owners cut the power to the amps, enraging Allin and sending the naked rocker into the crowd in search of violence.

The next night in Portland Allin repeats many of the same acts--the fire (this time lighting up a Bible and a t-shirt for the band Sub-Pop, whom he calls "The Ruiners of Rock n' Roll"), the defecation, the enemas. Even his leaps into the pit and backward rolls back onto the stage--exposing his anus to the crowd--have a certain oddly scripted quality. What's not scripted is the escalating violence of this gig compared to the last. Allin throws his mic into the crowd like a bolo, many times connecting with the heads of attendees. His fights with his "fans" are more violent and extended, as he gives and gets boots to the head, punches to the face, and wads of juicy spit. Allin destroys three or four microphones, shouting some songs at the top of his lungs without amplification. This show ends in a near riot, and Allin--whether infuriated by the lights going out in the club, or sensing that the crowd was turning even uglier than usual--abruptly grabs his gear and flees the stage.

Really, describing these concerts is like describing a car wreck; watching them is like watching some plotless Japanese body-horror flick--the Guinea Pig series, maybe. Only it's real. Even if much of it was just performance, the things that happen actually happen, and watching Allin rolling onstage, threatening and attacking and degrading the audience and himself, is like watching a madman's visions of a tormented soul in Hell come to life.

Allin and company get prettified before the Boston gig

After my viewing, I wondered why MVD had released this dvd as "live in Boston," spotlighting the tamest of the three shows. Is there some legal chicanery at work? Would they have more likely faced censure for selling the naked, coprophagus, violent shows as the "main event," and sought some measure of protection by designating the extreme performances as "bonus material"? Perhaps--I don't know. But viewed as a progression, the gigs show a journey from relative sanity to complete self-destructive madness. Maybe this is a false perception--maybe Allin was just as bad in 1989. Still, it's a viewing that's stuck with me, disturbed me, and continues to fascinate.

Would I recommend this DVD? Not to the casual viewer, certainly. You need to know what you're getting into. If you're interested in Allin as a figure, in extreme underground music from the late 80s/early 90s in America, or in visual and mental endurance tests, then yes, this is for you. As for everyone else--maybe it's better you don't know.

Buy the DVD from MVD, if you dare.

It's All Downhill from Here


Jenn said...

The Murder Junkies still perform and they played in Richmond maybe two years ago. I went, but it paled in comparison to seeing a GG performance, to say the very least. There wasn't anyone like GG, that's for sure. Although El Duce comes close...

The Vicar of VHS said...

Jenn, did you actually see GG live, or just via tapes? I kinda hope the latter, for your sake!

Jenn said...

Nope, I just saw the Murder Junkies. GGs been dead since '93, so I never had the chance. My mom wouldn't let me go see Metallica back then- could you imagine if she let me out of the house to see GG?

The Vicar of VHS said...

I figured you might have snuck out! Who knows what shenanigans you got up to in your tender youth? ;)

Yeah, I didn't even mention GG's death and infamous funeral. I figure I'll leave some things for the curious to find out for themselves. :P

Vulnavia Morbius said...

It's probably safe to say that most of the world has no idea who singer-songwriter/performer GG Allin was.

I don't know if it's that safe of an assumption, given that punk has pretty much conquered the world by this time. You're probably right, but you might not be as "right" as you think. There are a LOT of music geeks out there.

Back in the mid 90s, when I was part owner of an alternative video store, we had a bootleg video of one of G G Allin's shows. It was among our top five renting tapes. Go figure. Oddly enough, interest in Allin didn't translate to Hated when it came out. I think this is an instance where the bootleg had more of the cache` of the underground than an official release.

I kinda miss dangerous punk.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Dr. Morbius, I admit that with the rise to prominence (dare I say "mainstreaming"?) of punk since its beginnings in the 70s, together with the broadening of music geek circles thanks to the 'net, that awareness of GG Allin is more likely now than ever before; however, I'm fairly well convinced that if I did a quick person-on-the-street poll, I'd likely get upwards of 90-95% "Huh? Who?" responses--at least in my stomping grounds.

I think this is an instance where the bootleg had more of the cache` of the underground than an official release.

It may well be the case. After all, a grainy, masking-tape labeled bootleg VHS tape would be objectively more punk than a shiny mass-produced DVD, wouldn't it? (Maybe not though, with the means of production ever more accessible.) I haven't seen HATED, but I might be interested to. Is it worth it?

I kinda miss dangerous punk.

I have to admit that punk as a musical genre is not something I've educated myself about to a great extent. I was a metalhead in high school, I'm afraid, jumping straight there from my elementary/jr. high doo-wop and 60s rock n' roll fascination. :P I always feel that I should learn more, but so far haven't made the effort.

Jenn said...

Sam has had the pleasure of seeing GG live back in his NYC days. I think the ex saw them as well. But they're a few years older than me and way more punk, at least they'd like to think so :)

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